This is the fourth piece I’ve submitted to Slugger in 2023 on the challenges facing Sir Jeffrey Donaldson in getting his party back into government in Stormont. The essence of the previous 3 was that Jeffrey needed to face down the old (literally and figuratively) Paisleyite rump of his party by claiming victory from his negotiations with HMG and using that claimed victory to lead a realignment of mainstream unionism into something currently lapsed voters can embrace. It certainly hasn’t been an easy or quick process, but on the assumption that he’s about to complete the first stage of it, I think its worth exploring where he is, where he may be about to go, and how well he’s done to get there.
One thing I’ve found genuinely amusing this weekend is the evident fact that by and large or political journalists and our commentator class genuinely don’t seem to know exactly where Jeffrey currently stands and what (if anything) is likely to happen this coming week. The one who stuck his neck out furthest was Richard Sullivan in the Sunday World. He offered the scenario that Jeffrey won his party officer vote 2:1 in favour of returning to office. He also offered that he had won over acquiesence (if not actual support) of the Loyalist Communities Council for a return to government. All very encouraging him but the article went on to opine that Jeffrey wasn’t prepared to split the DUP at this stage, so no clarity on what happens next.
Here’s the point. Splitting the DUP is exactly what unionism needs. Not a split of the sort the UUP faced throughout the 70s and 80s, but a clear marginalisation of what I referred to here in October as the tired old increasingly septuagenarian voices of the Paisleyite rump of the Westminster DUP. I believe Jeffrey Donaldson has played a sensible and successful game so far to get to the stage he’s at. He appears to have shown common sense in his dealings with HMG and has not at any stage been abrasive with those likely to be his party’s partners in the next Executive. He has also been seen to surround himself with party reps who are not identikit old style DUP and not seen as belonging to the fundamentalist mentality that weakened the DUP so much even prior to Brexit. The likes of Gavin Robinson, Gordon Lyons and Emma Little Pengelly are obviously comfortable as DUP members and all that has entailed, but there is also a sense of pragmatism and realism about them we will never see in the Wilson, Dodds and Paisley brand of DUP. But the union will never be strengthened and the pro-union vote will never come out of decline while these men and their attitudes are seen to prevail in the DUP.
In short, this is the telling moment for Jeffrey Donaldson and his leadership of the DUP. This is not the 70s. There is no one of the substance or standing of Bill Craig or Ian Paisley to split his party and bring tens of thousands on the streets to oppose him and denounce him as a traitor. Nor are the broad unionist community as easily roused to that sort of action as they were in those more unstable and dangerous times. We are far too cynical for that. No one in the rump of the DUP has any particular appeal outside an equally aged rump of party stalwarts so while they could cause internal party irritations for Donaldson or give him a hard time on the BBC. But that’s as far as it goes. As I said in my previous pieces here, there isn’t an anti-Windsor groundswell among the unionist community so Jeffrey and his own close colleagues urgently need to now quickly and confidently face down and marginalise what remains of their internal opposition and work with other mainstream unionists and their Executive partners of all parties to re-establish political unionism as a credible voice capable of presenting the union as something of benefit to us all before entire generations are lost.
I knew Jeffrey Donaldson back in the 80s when we were young guys involved in unionism in a challenging, unstable and dangerous time. We got on well but more often than not were on opposite sides of internal schisms as he was closely aligned with the Molyneaux/Powell establishment side of the UUP, a group for whom I had pretty thinly veiled contempt. I was living in England when he defected to the DUP. I was very disappointed to read about what I still believe was nothing but a move motivated by career preservation. But to his credit he was never a bigot or anything approaching a Paisleyite. So what he appears to have done over the past few months has been a gargantuan task and a major achievement given the DUP credentials he has needed to face down. I hope he can finish the job.
As for the suggestion mooted by certain “commentators” that the DUP and unionism in general isn’t prepared to “serve under” (yes that’s the term they are using, honestly) a nationalist First Minister. It’s a red herring. I’m sure there are people who find it difficult to accept someone who defends and commemorates the PIRA campaign and its affects as a head of our devolved government. But they’ve always felt that way while accepting the realpolitik of it. So nothing changes for them. Also no doubt there are some unionists who just don’t like the other side, as there as there are nationalists who feel the same way. But either way it’s not an issue. Everyone knows the 2 positions are completely equal and always have been. It’s just that Michelle will get to go first at press conferences. Anyway I’m sure Michelle will continue to refer to herself as “Joint First Minister” as she always has done.
I said here back in February that “Jeffrey should be feeling emboldened and confident following his recent successes. He needs to be as I genuinely believe that he now has the opportunity to fully claim his party as his own.” Maybe It was necessary to wait 9 or 10 months more but if he pulls this off and stands by it then he can do this, finish the process that stalled then went into reverse following the departure of Peter Robinson and establish a pro union party that can genuinely bring out the lapsed unionist voters in the heartlands and reclaim necessary unionist votes from Alliance that enable pro union voters to be painted as a minority. But to do that he needs to deliver from Stormont this time.
So good luck to Jeffrey and his future Executive colleagues. Now will any of the parties actually be any good at governing? That’s rather a different question.
Ian Clarke spent 36 years in sales & marketing for newspapers in Northern Ireland, England and Scotland – including the Belfast Telegraph, Wolverhampton Express & Star, Northern Echo and The Herald (Glasgow) after graduating from QUB in Political Science. Glentoran supporter.